“Big Magic” and the Provocative Theory of Ideas as Living Entities

Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book on inspiring creativity, Big Magic contains a startling notion. It is Gilbert’s unusual contention that ideas exist on this planet in the same way other sentient entities, such as humans, cats and bugs do. Unabashed in her assertion, Gilbert owns her words by suggesting not only does magic exist — but it exists in the same deliriously whimsical way that say, Hogwarts does.

So what are these disembodied entities Gilbert speaks of? Are they platonic ideals our earthly realm deigns to duplicate as droll but ultimately derivative facsimiles of the one true source? No. Ideas exist in the psychic sphere, beckoning us to bring them forth as physical manifestations. The only hindrance to their expression is our own creative will.

Gilbert speaks of inspiration in the same way the ancient Greeks used to talk about genius. People weren’t geniuses. They possessed a genius: an attendant inner spirit assigned to each person at birth. The modern conception of creativity usually features an individual tapping into the flow, “being in the zone.” A more alchemical, non-rational viewpoint such as Gilbert’s or even the teachings of Carlos Castaneda, would suggest that life is a lot weirder than we presently fathom. When we usher in ground-breaking concepts from the deep recesses of our unconsciousness, we are not so much plucking proto-thought forms from the Idea Tree, we are actually summoning forth ideas as beings.

Likening ideas to freewheeling Jinns evokes a kind of pleasing fairy tale aspect to the creative process. It suggests that powerful thoughts have a kind of plasticity and can flitter in and out of people’s heads, symbiotically interacting with their hosts. If the person is willing to put in the necessary time and focus towards manifesting the idea, then the entity will remain loyal, whispering in their ear sweet nothings until both the creator and the created are validated by the effort. Likewise, an idea not nourished, not lovingly wrought, will engender nothing corporeal and will assuredly dissipate into the ether before passing to the next willing collaborator.

Such unusual meditations on creativity’s nature will assuredly inflame critics eager to denounce anything smacking so highly of the suspect mystic. But even those ideas have their rightful place if we are to consider Gilbert’s provocative notion. More interesting than that old debate is the pragmatic implication. Do we dare birth heart-stopping ideas when they playfully dance on the edges of our dreams? Shall we take the lead of fearless thinkers, like Copernicus, two-stepping with alien thoughts and thus birthing our Heliocentric cosmology? Shall we shrink from the sight of wild new economic paradigms? Groundbreaking artistic forms? Divergent new modes of existing?

One last thing. Gilbert points out that what makes humans so special is our ability to be creative. Excavated works of art predate practical antiquities by thousands and thousands of years. That means the primal urge towards creativity was far more pressing than the rigors of farming and livestock domestication. We were put here to be creative. Let’s find ways to live up to that ideal.